Paper presented at the 21st International
Theory Construction in TAE
I taught TAE to psychotherapy research students for the first time this year, and found that in order for this part of TAE to make sense to them, I needed to say something about the nature of scientific theories and their development. Why bother to develop a theory? Why not just stay with one’s experiencing?
As Gendlin says in one of his video presentations, in order to appreciate the importance of theory we need to have some appreciation of what a theory is.
In this presentation I will give three examples of theories, drawn
from the work of
Theories are distinguished from facts, although the dividing line between the two can be hazy: the theory that the earth revolves around the sun as become an accepted fact. And sometimes a previously accepted fact, such as the fact that the earth is flat, can be demolished by the construction of a new theory. People say ‘But that’s just a theory’ or ‘Evolution is not a theory – it is a fact’. Sometimes people use ‘theory’ to mean much the same as ‘hypothesis’, but we need to distinguish between hypotheses about what happens in the world and hypotheses about why these things happen.
(1) Hypotheses about regularities (patterns) - eg whether it is true that coffee can interfere with sleep, or that listening to people is therapeutic. Establishing whether such regularities exist usually requires observation, data collection or experiments. The discovered rgularities are, as it were, straightforward facts about the world. Things behave like this, or they don’t.
(2) Theories, on the other hand don’t just state what the regularities or patterns are. They attempt to explain why the regularities exist, through putting forward a view of the underlying nature of things. Theories answer ‘Why?’ questions. E.g. once it is established that coffee 9in some circumstances, and in some people) interferes with sleep we can investigate what it is about the nature of coffee and the nature of sleep, such one interferes with another. The theory is likely to bring in
lots of other things – caffeine, chemicals in the brain and so on. Once you have the theory you say ‘Ah, yes, now I understand why that happens’, or at least ‘I do see how that could explain why it happens’.
A theory of that sort still works within familiar concepts and principles – it shows how the pattern fits with those concepts and principles. It is essentially a puzzle-solving activity – the puzzle is how existence of the regularity follows from what we already know about the world. Much scientific research is like this – the historian Thomas Kuhn referred to it as ‘normal science’.
scientific developments are not a matter of fitting the pattern into the
familiar concepts and principles but of
developing new concepts. This clearly happens in the work of great
innovators such as
Carl Rogers’ theory of psychotherapy can illustrate this
generation of new concepts. It is
characteristic of theories that once they become widely accepted they tend to
be seen as established facts – it no longer seems to us a theory that the earth rotates around the sun. And for many of us in the therapy world it
can seem that
There is something that
Empathy in client-centred therapy is a concept that is integrated with the conditions of congruency and unconditional positive regard…The concepts of empathy and unconditional positive regard are fundamentally the same in Rogerian theory.
If we were beginning from the felt sense of ‘receiving the client’, and working in a TAE sort of way we would do something like this: We would give the three main terms labels and try understanding them as inherently connected.
The TAE development would be something like:
Our felt sense tells us these terms are connected.
So we try connecting them explicitly - using ‘=’ to indicate some kind of inherent link. We could try out:
Empathy = UPR ( This could be the idea that Empathy involves UPR : you can’t really be with someone unless you respect them, and UPR involves an element of empathy: you can’t really fully respect someone unless you understand them )
UPR = congruence (UPR must be genuine: you are not really respecting someone unless you are being genuine with them, and being congruent with someone shows a respect for your relationship with them).
Congruence = empathy (This could be the point that Empathy must be genuine: You are not really empathising with someone if you are not being genuine with them, and you are not being congruent with them unless you understand them).
Now we could bring in another term that seems closely bound up
with the three conditions – the notion
of self-healing, or what
We try making AT inherently link with the others, like this:
AT = empathy: the idea that self-healing involves empathy with oneself
A new concept has emerged here – the concept of self-empathy
AT = UPR AT flourishes in UPR
UPR encourages the AT
This suggests that the AT is relational – it depends on the environment.
AT = congruence Congruence is the AT - congruence is the organism being itself
So congruence is a process
Here the theory is developing: it brings a new set of concepts, a new way of thinking, and this new way of thinking begins to explain some important regularities – such as the fact that just listening to a client can be healing, that deep relationship can be healing, that focusing can be healing:
Why can just listening to a client be healing?
Because the listening can embody UPR and the AT flourishes in UPR
The theory suggests that only some sorts of listening will be healing – it won’t be healing if I’m listening hard with a view to catching you out! The theory will tell you about the kind of listening that is important
Why is engaging at relational depth healing?
Because relational depth typically involves high levels of U, E and C
But only this sort of relational depth will help – not, e,g., the sort that is said to exist sometimes between torturer and victim, or other abusive relationships. There can be relations in depth that are deeply destructive.
Why do clients who do focusing make better progress?
Because focusing involves self-empathy and self-acceptance, and empathy and acceptance facilitate the actualising tendency.
Also because focusing involves being more congruent and being more congruent is an actualisation of the individual
A good theory develops terms that illuminate many regularities, many connections.
It pulls together things which previously seemed separate
It also shows us the limitations of the regularities, such as the limitation that not all listening will be therapeutic. The theory begins to tell us what the limitations are.
Finally, it may be possible to apply the theory in new
Theories are important because they give us access to the interconnectedness of things. They display the world in a way that shows its interconnectedness. The connections between the terms of the theory are rooted in the connectedness of the world, although there may be alternative theories that can display different ways in which there in interconnection.
Does what I have said apply in science generally? I think it does, but the point is hard to
illustrate without technical knowledge of the branch of science in
question. In physics it can be hard to
see what is going on, because the interconnections are often formulated
mathematically. However, we can get a glimpse of how it works by looking briefly at
In coming to understand concepts we don’t necessarily have
to follow the route that their originator followed. All we have to appreciate is the way the
concepts are interconnected. So rather
than trying to follow
In our experience of motion, big things take more shifting than little things, and the bigger the push the more something moves. We could start with that, and draw out of it three main terms:
AM Amount of motion
In our experience of moving things, these three seem all to come together. So we try making links between the terms:
B=P Big things in motion create more push
P=AM The more the push the more the change in motion
AM=B The more the change in motion, the bigger the thing must have been.
Then checking back with the felt sense we realise that we need to specify more exactly what our terms are to mean, or introduce new technical terms that will have just those specified meanings:
By B (bigness) we mean not just size but more pushing-ability, or massiveness (M)
By P (push) we mean not just what moves something, but also what stops things from moving, deflects things, gets thing moving faster - P produces change in motion. Call this ‘Force’, F
Then instead of AM we seem to need a term for change in the amount of motion, what we might call acceleration, A
Then we can say precisely that
More F (force) gives more A (acceleration) for a given M (mass)
More M (mass) needs more F (force) for the same A (acceleration)
These are the sort of relationships that can be expressed by elementary algebra:
F= M x A (fix M – then more F gives more A)
M = F/A ( fix A – then more M means more F)
A= F/M (fix F - then less M will mean more A)
The terms are interlinked – none can be understood without the others. These are theoretical terms, terms developed as elements of theory, and dependent on each other for their meanings.
They have very specific meanings – acceleration doesn’t cover only going faster and faster – but also slowing down, or being deflected - A is change in motion.
Mass is not same as bigness in the sense of size – it is ‘quantity of matter’ – measured by how much push is needed to give a particular acceleration.
Force is not just something felt. We feel the force of the wind, but we don’t feel the force of the earth’s magnetism. That force is shown in how a compass needle moves. It is shown in how the moon moves around the earth. (That particular force becomes known as ‘gravity’. There was no such thing in Aristotle’s physics).
These concepts form the core of
A theory is an interlinked set of terms (concepts) that illuminates the
inter-connectedness of the world. (But the
world is interconnected in myriad ways, so that although
Here is a third example, that Gendlin has discussed a bit in one of his video presentations. It concerns one of Freud’s early formulations of his basic theory.
(see his ‘Formulations regarding the two principles in mental functioning’ (1911). In Psychological Papers, Vol 4, pp. 13-21).
We can begin from these patterns (regularities):
People often have distorted perceptions, unrealistic views.
People may deceive themselves, deny things, or see things that are not there.
Some slips of tongue seem to be motivated.
We may mis-remember – in a way that is congenial to us.
These all seem to be connected – as if there is one bit of us that sees things as they are, and another bit that sees what it wants to see. As often happens in theory construction, there is a metaphor at work here – a metaphor (very familiar now) of a person as a committee of sub-persons.
If we are following a TAE process we now choose some terms and link them:
The bit that sees things as they are: Call this RB - the reality bit
The bit that sees things as we’d like them to be: Call this PB - the pleasure bit
The process by which the pleasure bit represses (distorts or denies) reality: Call this REP
Then TAE suggests that we connect the terms:
RB = PB The RB (reality bit) is repressed by PB (pleasure bit)
PB = REP The PB (pleasure bit) is what does the REP (repression)
REP = RB REP (repression) works on the RB (reality bit)
From this Freud’s early concepts naturally arise:
A ‘pleasure-ego’ that ‘can do nothing but wish, work towards gaining pleasure and avoiding pain’ and a ‘reality-ego’ that does ‘nothing but strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage’ (Freud, p. 18). Also repression, where ‘the neurotic turns away from reality because he finds it unbearable – either the whole or parts of it’ (p. 13).
The theory now begins to explain some of the patterns we started from:
In psychological disturbance the pleasure-ego is dominant, and the reality-ego is weak, so that the person has difficulties through not being in realistic contact with the world.
Self-deception is explained as the pleasure-ego over-ruling the reality-ego.
Mis-remembering is similar.
Slips of the tongue can be understood as the pleasure-ego managing to say what it feels in spite of the reality-ego’s attempts to guard against such expression.
Freud believed that he had discovered that much psychological disturbance is related to sexuality – can the theory explain that? Yes, because in human sexual development there is a long latency period in which the pleasure-ego is not modified by the reality ego. Hence it would not be surprising if psychological disturbance were related to sexuality.
Freud then extends his theory to issues in religion, education and art. He suggests that:
Religion reconciles the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego by promising happiness in the next life if you abandon pleasure in this life
Education involves the control of the pleasure-ego by the reality-ego - learning how the world is, not how we would like it to be
Artists reconcile the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego by creating fantasy realities which other people will nevertheless buy from them. Thus artists can indulge their pleasure-ego while managing to earn their living in the real world.
‘Pleasure-ego’ and ‘reality-ego’ are theoretical terms. They can be seen as ‘bits’ of the self, but they are different from phenomenological ‘bits’ such as ‘my angry bit’ and ‘my scared bit’. Yet it would be wrong to say that they have no experiential aspect: someone who has come to think in these terms may well describe an experience as one in which their pleasure-ego broke through the normal repression. Similarly, although electrons and other sub-atomic particles are theoretical terms, physicists speak of seeing their tracks in cloud-chamber photographs.
The theories I have considered are wide-ranging theories in which theorists of genius have created new way of seeing things. But one fascinating thing about TAE is that the same principles apply in trying to understand much more limited aspects of the world. In the natural sciences theory has by now become highly developed, and in order to make a creative contribution one has to become familiar with the development of the theory up to now. That is what undergraduate and postgraduate study of a branch of science involves. However, in human affairs, unlike in the natural sciences, there are few really well developed theories, and those that do exist, such as psychoanalytic theory, tend to be highly controversial.
This means that there is plenty of space for people who are familiar with some aspect of human life to develop theories about it. The point of doing this, apart from the inherent satisfaction of gaining understanding, is to make explicit some of the connections that can be sensed within that field, so that other people can pick up more quickly on what some of those connections are. Once a theory is developed, other people will be senitised to what they might usefully look for; they won’t have to go through the whole process by which the originator of the theory got hold of the concepts. This is largely how advances in understanding come about. I remember the philosopher Karl Popper saying in his lectures ‘If everyone had to start where Adam and Eve started, then we would not have got any further than Adam and Eve’. But for one person to build on another’s experience, the first person needs to be able to formulate their experience in general concepts that nevertheless arise from their particular experiencing. The second person then approaches their own experiencing with those concepts, and then discovers either that the concepts work for them, and carry them forward, or they may find that the concepts need to be modified. The development of new understanding is thus a highly inter-personal and collective activity. It involves both individual experiencing and the development of general concepts and theories which formulate that experiencing.
Such development of concepts and theories is what is involved in creative thinking, and Gendlin points out that anyone can do this. It is true that you can’t do creative thinking in physics without a long immersion in physical theory, but in most human fields there is little pre-existent theory to be mastered. These fields await the creative thinking of anyone who has significant experience in the field, and who can therefore sense the connections that are there. It is from those sensed connections that a theory may be developed.